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Secrets of a long life from five 'immortal' countries
LIFE expectancy in Spain is the fourth-highest in the world and the highest in Europe – and journalist Lindsay Galloway sought to find out its secret, and those of the other countries with the world's top five longest-living inhabitants.
The record is held by South Korea, which is expected to be the first country in the world to reach a life expectancy of 90 years of age in the very near future – a factor attributed to its healthy and ever-expanding economy, full access to medical care and an across-the-board lower blood pressure among its inhabitants, together with its diet. High-fibre, highly-nutritious grub is on any typical Korean menu, and the country's cuisine includes plenty of fermented foodstuffs, which are believed to trigger the immune system, helping to ward off cancer, and reducing cholesterol.
A community spirit where quality of life is considered paramount, a collectivist culture, one that primes relaxation, and the main religion being Buddhism are also considered to be the reason why South Koreans can expect to live to at least 90.
Singapore comes second with a life expectancy of 83.1 years, Ms Galloway reports – or 83 years and five-and-a-bit weeks – thanks to the country's boasting one of the most sophisticated healthcare services on earth where most of its efforts and funds go towards prevention, avoiding having to spend on too many cures. Exercise is part of the culture in Singapore, either working out in parks in the metropolitan area or going to the gym, whilst psychological wellbeing and stress relief is considered extremely important.
Drinking and smoking are statistically very low, given that cigarettes and alcohol are too expensive for the average Singaporean to afford regularly.
Japan is only just behind Singapore with a life expectancy of 83 years, and is currently home to the oldest woman on earth, who is aged 117. Japanese cuisine is believed to be one of the secrets to the country's longevity, with some fish and a high level of sweet potato and tofu in its recipes, as well as the community spirit – the elderly have a very active social life and loneliness is never an issue.
Switzerland comes second to Spain, with a life expectancy of 81 years, being slightly higher for men than for women – which is rare, given that female life expectancy nearly always outstrips that of males.
The country's wealth, excellent medical services available to everyone, the fact that it is one of the safest nations on earth, and – although largely considered a work-focused culture, the fact Switzerland has so many idyllic mountainous rural retreats to wind down off-duty, within easy access of major cities, are said to be some of the reasons why people who live there enjoy such long lives. Even the schooling system – private education being among the best in the world in Switzerland, and affordable on a Swiss wage – and the high consumption of dairy produce have been named as secrets to living a long life.
What makes Spain so special?
Spain beats Switzerland, however, and enjoys the longest life-span in Europe at 82.8 years, or just 10-and-a-half weeks short of 83, meaning it is fast catching up with Japan.
Although the debate has long been out as to how healthy it really is for workers to take an excessively-long lunch break and then not clock off until 20.00 or 21.00, leading to limited quality sleep and little home and family time, some employees remain strong advocates of the benefits of the traditional pattern.
Ms Galloway spoke to a Barcelona tour guide who pointed out that those who only have 30 minutes or an hour for lunch will only have time to bolt down a 'plastic sandwich' or similar 'processed' light meal without digesting it properly or really having any down time before getting back on the job.
Yet those who are forced to stop for a long lunch because their workplace is closed – normally anything from 14.00 to 16.00 as a minimum, and even from 13.00 to 17.30 outside of big cities – are more likely to either go home or to a restaurant, sit down and relax with two or three courses of 'proper, cooked food', digest it fully and relax, the tour guide asked explained.
However, this can only work for employees who live near enough to return home for lunch, or have the money to eat daily in a restaurant – others have to hang around a closed-up town for four hours and eat a 'plastic sandwich' on a park bench.
The Mediterranean diet, rich in olive oil, fresh fruit and vegetables and oily fish has always been hailed as a key to a long, healthy life – and although fast food, chips and unhealthy snacks are more likely to be consumed in Spain these days, childhood obesity is on the rise and those living away from the coast tend to eat red meat at least once a day instead of fish, the amount of processed, high-sugar and high-additive food in supermarkets is very low compared to in other parts of the western world, with snacking between meals on chocolate, biscuits and crisps not being part of the culture.
City-dwellers in Spain tend to walk more, since urban centres are more compact and metropolitan areas less sprawling and more contained, meaning everything necessary is generally within walking distance and lack of parking means taking the car is more hassle than it is worth. A half-kilometre walk to a supermarket is not considered unusual in a Spanish town or city, unlike in the UK where residents will drive to a shop two streets away.
Anecdotal evidence from residents who are still very active and alert in old age claims the secrets to longevity in Spain include the sun – guaranteed warm weather for several months of the year, and bright sunshine even when it is very cold, improve mood and general health – the closer-knit communities, family focus and fewer social restraints, and the 'outdoor' lifestyle.
Whilst some residents in their 100s have said a glass of wine a day could be their secret, the fact that alcohol consumption tends to be more regular but moderate is healthier than in northern Europe: it is cheap and served everywhere, at any time of the day, so it has never had a 'novelty' or 'taboo' flavour to it leading to binge-drinking.
First photograph: A Spanish couple aged 100 and 105, childhood sweethearts who are still married to each other
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